I AM off to meet that most esoteric, verging-on-mythological performer of the Big Top - a lion tamer. Sorry, lion trainer. But instead of turning right from the bottom of my street towards Coate Water where Gerry Cottle’s Circus is encamped, I am steering left.

About ten minutes later, while striding towards the allotted location of the interview, my senses are not assailed by the musty aroma of sawdust, straw and several varieties of animal excrement, but instead by its’ very antithesis… the unmistakably antiseptic and clinical fragrance of a hospital corridor.

And there is the man himself, not brandishing a chair or a whip but looking a very sad sight indeed while nevertheless putting on a brave face as you would expect from such a tough character. He is Othmar Vohringer who just a couple of days earlier was quite literally plucked from the jaws of death.

Othmar, 36, is recovering at Princess Margaret Hospital after a terrifying experience – a life-or-death drama, as we journalists like to put it. The Swiss-born circus performer, as you’ve probably guessed, received a thorough mauling at the hands – or rather, paws – of some of his leonine charges.

I can’t help thinking of Othmar, who I spoke to 27 years ago, whenever the emotive subject of banning wild animals from circuses crops up, as it does every now and then in pubs, on the internet and in the media, usually after some dreadful example of animal suffering at human hands.

Long promised pledges to bar all animals from UK circus performances were last year blocked by three Tory MPs who voted against a private members bill… even though PM David Cameron slated such performances an “outdated practice.”

What with Brexit and everything, this issue is hardly likely to be at the top of the Parliamentary agenda even though 90 per cent of the population are said to be against the use of wild creatures in circuses (what the hell are the other ten per cent thinking of?)

So, turn the clocks back to Swindon, December, 1989, when a near-fatal episode seemed to highlight much of what is wrong with hauling proud, graceful and exceedingly fierce creatures around the countryside for the purposes of entertainment.

Othmar’s fortunate avoidance of fatal injury did not occur during a performance of The Gerry Cottle Circus in front of horrified Swindonians but while he was putting a handful of lions through their paces at the Marlborough Road site in readiness for a Christmas extravaganza.

Sitting up in bed in his yellow pyjama bottoms, and with both hands and arms heavily bandaged, the mutilated lion tamer matter-of-factly recalled how two three-year-old lions did to him what no other creature had done during 15 years in the lion’s den.

Massai and Levi were having a bit of a barney, roaring and pawing at each other when Othmar promptly stepped in to terminate the bout, prevent the cats from making a mess of each other and, importantly, to stop the unrest spreading to their fellow king-of-beasts.

“One of them, I don’t know which, went for me,” he recalled with a shake of the head. “I grabbed the stool and held it in front of me like a shield. The lion jumped on me but I had to keep my feet. If I’d have fallen on the floor I would have been lost.”

He was desperately edging towards the cage’s exit when one of the 500lb creatures, demonstrating admirable tactical nouse, knocked the stool from his grasp.

“I put my arm into his mouth to stop him getting at my face,” continued Othmar. “I was frightened I was going to get it in the face. He kept going for me. It was the same lion over and over again.”

Bleeding heavily and seemingly at the mercy of a rampant lion, Othmar’s future appeared bleak until swift salvation arrived in the form of pint-sized Susan Lacey, 35, Britain’s only female lion tamer.

Hearing the unrest Susan, all 4ft 11 inches of her, pluckily burst into the cage through an emergency door and beat back the leading lion, along with his encroaching fellows with her whip and stick.

Hours later surgeons were operating on Othmar, who sustained a broken right arm where the offending big cat had bitten through it. Both his arms were severely mauled, requiring a skin graft and 150 stitches.

Othmar went on: “I am lucky to be alive. Susan saved my life.” Did he resent the lions having a pop? Absolutely not. It’s the nature of the beast.

“They sometimes like a fight,” he shrugged, with some understatement. “It’s in their nature. When they’re angry there’s nothing you can do.”

Before being wheeled off for the aforementioned skin graft, Othmar added with obvious honesty and passion: “I still love my lions. I can’t wait to get back in the ring with them.”

And a few days later, after discharging himself from hospital, he was.

  • A swift trawl through the internet finds Othmar, now 63, alive and well and living in British Columbia, Canada where he describes himself as “an outdoor writer, seminar speaker, photographer, hunter and conservationist” who celebrates “our rich and diverse North American hunting/conservationist heritage.”
  •  OTHMAR Vohringer isn’t the only lion tamer to have come a cropper in Swindon. Some 115 years earlier George Newcombe got a bit of a mauling.
    On the occasion of a visit to the town centre by Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie in 1874 he was centre-stage when a large lioness, who perhaps didn’t fancy jumping on a stool instead jumped on Newcombe.
    He fought back with stick and whip when, amazingly, a male lion came between them, allowing Newcombe to beat a hasty retreat.
    Despite being urged by the crowd not to re-enter the cage, the lion tamer was soon back in thick of it and this time attacked by all five lions, who were perhaps appalled by his stupidity.
    Newcombe’s life was saved by a couple of brave assistants but not before he sustained serious wounds to his arms, leg and back.
    The old adage “the show must go on” proved true as another tamer speedily entered the cage and finished the act.
  •  A PROPOSED law banning the use of wild animals in circuses failed last year after being blocked by a trio of Tory backbenchers. 
    Lions, tigers, zebras and camels can still be used in travelling circuses if additional permission is given. 
    Last year Thomas Chipperfield, “Britain’s last lion tamer” was refused a licence to operate in England but staged a show in Wales where a licence was not required. Circuses in the UK that deploy ‘domesticated’ animals such as llamas, horses and dogs, can operate. 
    However, ongoing campaigns by a number of groups are aimed at outlawing the use of all animals in such shows.  
    Circus animals spend much of the year in transit from one location to another, confined in small wagons while methods used to train them have also been branded as cruel.
  •  “YOU’VE got two choices.” I knew something was up. I could see it in his eyes. He was trying to conceal a smirk, too – always a dangerous sign. “Right, you either lay down and let an elephant put its foot on top of you or you’re into the lions’ den.”

    Alan Johnson, the Adver’s news editor, relaxed in his swivel chair and awaited my response with something approaching satisfaction. Well, I’m not getting flattened by an elephant. Not very cool at all. So it’s lions then. That’s how my wife Pauline remembers it, anyway. It is September, 1979 and young reporter Pauline Leighton is about to share a cage with Pasha, Lear, Sheba, Ruth, Vic, Cindy, Flo and Dinah. Chipperfields Circus is in town and these feisty babes are its pride and joy…eight two year-old, 200lb lionesses.

    At least Simba, a male lion who doesn’t like women – the human variety – wasn’t amongst ‘em. There’s no way he could be trusted not to mangle our correspondent. After knocking back a few lunchtime vodkas, the quivering hackette found herself in an empty cage with lion tamer Dick Chipperfield when the hefty thump of muscular paws signalled the imminent arrival of eight hunky gels.

    “That was the worst bit,” Pauline later recalled. “Hearing their approaching feet through the tunnel.” “Right,” said Dick when the ladies had arrived and settled themselves on their stools, “we’ll just walk up to them.” Feeling like a steak sarney-in-the-making, Pauline reported: “We got to within four feet and they decided no stranger was going to invade their territory. They snarled and got ready to pounce if I overstepped the mark.”

    She was only encaged for a couple of minutes but it like seemed hours. Sheba, in particular, was giving the Adver’s representative the evil eye. Photographer Erik Hansen, however, was enjoying the show as he poked his lens through the cage from the safety of the other side. Afterwards Dick revealed that he’d once been attacked by a pack of leopards during a performance. “They ripped chunks out of me.” Now the managing editor of Newsquest Wiltshire, Pauline is keen to state: “I am very much against the use of wild animals in circuses for many reasons. “These gorgeous (and scary) creatures should be in the wild, not caged-up for the amusement of circus-goers. “All those years ago I didn’t have much choice but to go in with the lions. To refuse would have been seen as a bit weak – a bit girlie. And I wasn’t having that.”